Will Oldham and his Bonnie Billy perfume.
Photo: Getty/Sanae Intoxicants
Ok, so there are two possible reactions you might be having right now, after reading the name Bonnie “Prince” Billy. One is that you’re like, “who dat?” and scratching your head and maybe moving on to another post (don’t move on! This is going to be funny, swear!), or, you’re thinking about the last time you got sad, put “I See A Darkness” on your iPod, and cried into your pillow. The stage name of legendary punk folk songwriter Will Oldham, the music of Bonnie “Prince” Billy is emotional and singular, and those who love him, LOVE him a lot. But we’re not here to tell you what to put on your sad days playlist (although you totally should work him into your rotation). No, we’re here because we got our grubby little perfume loving paws on a vial of his Bonnie Billy fragrance, and OBVIOUSLY subjected our office to the MTV Style smell test. As we all learned when they gave their olfactory critiques of Rihanna’s Nude, our loyal coworkers are getting pretty good at the smell test game, but they were not prepared for the curve ball we threw them with Bonnie Billy. When we first got the sample, perfumer Sanae Barber of Sanae Intoxicants, the lab behind the smell, warned us of its intensity, saying “It’s slightly reminiscent of gasoline when you first take a whiff. It’s intense!” she went on to explain, “I’m using 80% pure perfume oils, attars, resins and absolutes. After applying, wait about 20 to 30 min. It warms, softens and a prism of scents are released, most people especially notice the jasmine, tobacco and oud.” With this in mind, I volunteered myself as guinea pig, and put the fragrance on both of my wrists. Gaby Wilson also got some on her hands, and we went slowly around the office, gauging people’s reactions as the scent changed.
First we went to our Editorial Director, Sophia Rai, who is about as discerning as they come. We didn’t really warn her about what was coming, and we need to make it clear that this was when the fragrance was at its most pungent. She gave me the side-eye as she leaned in to smell my wrist, probably mostly because, #boundaries, but you know, anything for science. “OH MY GOD,” she exclaimed, covering her nose with her hand, “I’m scared to smell it twice…that’s on your body now.” Needless to say we retreated quickly, and yes, at first, the scent was jarring. Sanae wasn’t kidding when she said it smells like gasoline at first. Before completely fleeing, however, we asked Sophia who she thought was behind it. “Is it Lady Gaga?” she asked. This is honestly kind of what we thought Mama Monster’s black perfume would smell like, honestly, so not totally off base. In we went to ask Mary H.K. Choi, who had a slightly less, well, strong reaction to the scent. After just a few minutes we could already tell that it was changing, although oddly, it remained very gas station on Gaby’s fingers as it was changing to something more nuanced on my wrists. But back to Mary. She tentatively smelled my outstretched arm and said, matter of factly, “it smells a bit like vehicular homicide.” Gaby and I about lost it, but when we asked her to elaborate, the whole thing became much more clear. “A girl was wearing something really flowery and then got hit by a car and the scene still smells like the screeching tires.” Majorly dark, yes, but really not entirely off base. When we asked her to guess which celebrity was behind the scent, she quickly guessed Sky Ferreira because “she looks like she smells like the sweet part, but her clothes are the rubber part.” Meanwhile, Assistant Editor Chrissy Mahlmeister had a less extreme reaction, saying, “it smells like that log cabin incense, or toxic cleaning solution.”
The scent was losing its gasoline sharpness and was taking on something more subtle, although still super intense, as we walked over to the glass cube that houses our House Of Style team. Chelsea, Lauren, and India all smelled the scent at the same time, and their reactions went as kind of a call and response:
Chelsea: It smells like a nursing home. You have that on your body!
India: It kind of smells like a zoo, or a cedar chest. Like mothballs
Chelsea: Like the attic of a funeral parlor.
Lauren: Yes, it smells like a cedar chest, and kind of like formaldehyde.
India: This was made by a man.
Lauren: Like, a brawny man.
Chelsea: The O.G. Marlboro man.
India: Or some hipster like, I don’t know, Grizzly Bear.
While they weren’t totally off base, we assured them that the perfume definitely doesn’t contain formaldehyde. There was a distinctly musty, cedary smell developing, though, like smoke and powder all at once. We continued on to Brett Booth and Kim Thai, who each offered their guesses as to who had created the scent. Brett guessed Ke$ha, while Kim offered our favorite guess of the day: Nick Nolte. She also said that the scent smelled like artificial pine trees and cold metal. When we asked House Of Style production assistant Sheena her thoughts, she first asked if this was the scent I usually wear. Then she tried, and failed to guess who it was. When we showed her a photo of Will Oldham, it was like a light bulb appeared above her head. “Oh, it definitely looks like this guy’s perfume,” she said, “a little bit hippie, a little tangy.” And we agree with her.
We definitely did begin to smell the subtler notes of the fragrance as it had time to sit on my skin, although Gaby’s hands remained mysteriously pungent until she finally washed them. In the end, it’s a heady, masculine scent, but much more powdery than we had expected. It would be perfect for the urban mountain man, or the gentleman who aspires to be such, and who has a decent commute to work in the morning. To let it sink in, you know. While I washed it off before my dinner that evening, I have a dear friend who has been campaigning for my sample. The final verdict: certainly not for everybody, or most people, but for the right person, Bonnie Billy is just the ticket.